Words at Play

A Countdown of Words with Numbers 10-1

From 'hang ten' to 'one-horse town'


Hang ten is the name of a surfing maneuver in which the surfer rides with all 10 toes draped over the front edge of the surfboard. For this to be accomplished, it is necessary for the back end of the board to be in the wave so that the water will hold it down. Before hanging ten, you might want to try hanging five:

The hang five is easier, they say. It is half the hang ten. Instead of both feet, you stand with one foot back…. For many, just riding the wave is enough.
The Cape Argus (South Africa), 18 May 2008

Hang ten dates to the 1960s, the same decade Annette Funicello began starring in a number of "Beach Party" movies.

The expression "I wouldn't touch it (or 'him' or 'her') with a ten-foot pole" conveys contempt or extreme dislike. Originally, a ten-foot pole was simply a measure of distance. Famed 19th-century songwriter Stephen Foster used it to describe the depth of a mud hole in his popular song "Camptown Races," which contains the lyrics, "De blind hoss stick'n in a big mud hole … Can't touch de bottom wid a ten foot pole. Oh! doodah day!" In 1884, American author William Dean Howells used the phrase metaphorically (in his novel The Rise of Silas Lapham) to characterize a person in the declaration, "Do you suppose a fellow like young Corey, brought up the way he's been, would touch mineral paint with a ten-inch pole?" It was also in the late 19th century that the slangy phrase "wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole" emerged with its sense of unwillingness to involve oneself with a person or thing. 

Ten-gallon hat has been used to refer to a cowboy hat since the early 1900s. The likeliest and most obvious explanation for gallon being used in this way is that the hat, like the gallon measurement, was extremely large, perhaps the largest hat in the West. Just as the word pint is often used to describe what is smaller than average (as in pint-size and half-pint), gallon came to signify what is larger than average, even enormous. Large cowboy hats thus became known as ten-gallon hats.  

Another explanation is that the wide-brimmed hats worn by cowboys and ranchers were originally decorated with braids at the base of the crown. A Spanish word for braid is galón.  And so, it is said, derived the expression ten-gallon hat, but evidence covering this etymology has yet to be substantiated.


The origin of cloud nine is cloudy. Some have speculated that the term, which means "a feeling of well-being or elation," derives from the nine classes of angels in Christian cosmology. In this celestial hierarchy, there are three orders of angels, with three choirs per order. The ninth and highest class—the seraphim—are, according to one line of reasoning, "on cloud nine" by virtue of their supreme proximity to God.

Another possible explanation connects cloud nine with Dante's Divine Comedy. Just as Dante's "Inferno" describes descending levels of hell where damned souls suffer ever greater punishments, "Paradiso" depicts a series of heavens, the highest being the ninth. The souls in the ninth heaven are in the greatest state of bliss because, again, they are closest to God.

It has also been speculated that cloud nine is based on a less metaphysical view of the heavens. According to this theory, it derives from terminology used by meteorologists in classifying clouds, which was officially accomplished and approved of in the late 19th century. Ninth in the classification is the big, puffy, comfy-looking cumulonimbus cloud.

You might recognize the expression dressed to the nines. It's a specific application of the Scottish phrase to the nine(s) (singular nine is rarely used today). The earliest written evidence of the phrase appears in the 18th century with the meaning "to perfection" or "in a highly elaborate or showy manner." Scottish poet Robert Burns used it to fancy up his verse: "Thou paints auld nature to the nines," he once penned.

Dressed to the nines dates from the 19th century, and since that time it has become the most frequent construction in which the old Scottish phrase still occurs.

The expression nine days' wonder is based on the proverbial belief that something novel only attracts attention for nine days—in other words, a nine days' wonder is something or something that creates a short-lived sensation.

Denizens of Elizabethan England dismissed a short-lived sensation as a "nine days' wonder." Andy Warhol spoke of fame lasting mere 15 minutes. These days, a reality-TV star would be lucky to light up the Twitterverse for that long.
— Ray Jayawardhana, The Atlantic, 2 Oct. 2015

Metaphorically, the expression the whole nine yards is used to express that all of a related set of circumstances, conditions, or details are included—for example, "A huge Thanksgiving dinner was served: turkey, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, rolls, and pie—the whole nine yards."

Although no one has yet come up with definitive proof for any single explanation of the phrase's origin, speculation abounds and, given that a yard is a unit of measurement, it tends to be fabricated from literal uses. The whole nine yards has been attributed to the supposed nine cubic yard capacity of either a cement mixer or the scoop on a front-end loader; to the nine yards of cloth supposedly required to make an ornate article of clothing (such as a formal gown); and to the configuration of old square-rigged ships having three masts, each of which could have three yards (long spars tapered toward the ends that supported and spread the head of the square sails) so you'd have "the whole nine yards" in total. There are other theories as well, but all are unsubstantiated. One thing at least seems clear: it has nothing to do with the game of football, where, of course, it takes a whole ten yards to earn a first down.


Earliest evidence of eight ball used for the black pool ball numbered 8 is from the early 1900s, and the expression behind the eight ball, meaning "in a highly disadvantageous position," entered American English right behind it.

The expression may come from a certain game of pool in which players hit and attempt to pocket the numbered balls in order—with the eight ball to be pocketed last. Sometimes the next ball to be pocketed is positioned behind the eight ball, making it difficult to hit the object ball. If the player hits the eight ball with the cue ball first, they will be penalized; if the player pockets the eight ball, they lose. Hence, being behind the eight ball came to mean being at a disadvantage.  

One over the eight is a British expression that is used to say that a person (or yourself) has had one drink too many. It is first served in the early 20th century and may have originated from the notion that having just one more than eight drinks will make you—well—drunk.

"I am sure he was drunk, very drunk," he [Judge Bodfan Jenkins] said, adding that "this is a case of one over the eight. The defendant had one too many and it tipped him over the edge."
BBC News, 10 Dec. 2010

A piece of eight is an old Spanish silver dollar, or peso, which once had the value of eight reals and was therefore stamped with a large figure 8. In Colonial America, the piece of eight was adopted as legal tender, and it remained so as late as the Civil War. Its value was almost the same as that of the United States dollar.


Since the late 19th century, the alliterative seven seas has been used metaphorically, in some variation of "sailing the seven seas," to evoke all the waters or oceans of the world—and specifically the Arctic, Antarctic, North and South Pacific, North and South Atlantic, and Indian Oceans.

7 is a popular—and, to some, a lucky—number. There are 7 days of the week, 7 continents, 7 Wonders of the World, as well as 7 Deadly Sins. Can you guess which number it partners with to describe a person or thing that is either utterly confused or disorganized? Keep reading to find out.


People have been using a form of the phrase sixes and sevens since the 14th century. Originally, it referred to carelessness or risk-taking. 

Lat not this wretched wo thyne herte gnawe, / But, manly, set the world on sixe and sevene, / And if thow deye a martyr, go to hevene.
— Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, circa 1374   

It is most likely derived from dice playing. In a game of dice, a roll of a five and a six ("a cinque and sice," using the old names) was very much a long-shot bet. To bet on such a roll was extremely risky and oftentimes foolish. Over time, the early phrase "to set on cinque and sice" was altered to "to set on six and seven," and the meaning of the expression was broadened, denoting not only general carelessness but the confusion and disorder that might result from it.

In time, the saying was further altered to the modern at sixes and sevens with the meaning "in a state of disorder or confusion."

But part of me, I’ll confess, was at sixes and sevens about the sudden appearance of this game. Why—and how—had it so quickly become the rabid preoccupation of so many?
— Jennifer Senior, The New York Times, 5 Apr. 2019

Six-pack has referred to six bottles or cans (such as beer) that are packaged and sold together since the 1940s. An August 1949 advertisement in The Sheboygan (Wisconsin) Press reads: "Handy Six Pack Canned Beer. 6—12-oz. Pabst … 98c." In the 1990s, six-pack came to refer to a set of strong, well-defined abdominal muscles visible on a person's midsection formed like a "six-pack." 

If you're a Joe Six-Pack, you're an ordinary guy who probably drinks from a six-pack every now and then. That nickname has been around since the early 1970s.

Of course, your average Joe Six-Pack merely thinks it’s cute how The Lion King humanizes wild animals who in real life have absolutely no humanity and live by the law of the jungle.
— Dave Huber, The College Fix, 12 July 2019


Which is established in American English first, dollar store or five-and-ten store (a.k.a. five-and-dime store)? Earliest use of dollar store in print goes back to the 1860s whereas five-and-ten store dates to 1880. Five-and-dime is established in the 20th century. All three designate a store that sells inexpensive items.

You can thank miners for when you're told (if ever) to "take five," meaning "take a break from work," after hours of continuous labor. Take five originated in the jargon of U.S. mining. (You might also be told to "take ten," which is two times better.)

If he can save a little time at the beginning and the end of the shift and not "take five" too often, it would be quite possible for him to increase his output by four cars.
Engineering and Mining Journal, 9 Mar. 1918


Since the early 20th century, four-bagger has been used in baseball for a four-base hit on which the batter scores—a home run. The word bagger is also used to describe the extents of other successful at bats. A one-bagger is a one-base hit; a two-bagger is a double; a three-bagger is a triple. The fourth "bag" in a four-bagger is actually a "plate" (home plate). (Sorry four-bagger users for calling that out.) 

Many players hit four-baggers—once in a while, but Babe Ruth stands alone in his ability to hit home-runs consistently.
Automotive Industries, 1926 July 22

The Four Freedoms are the four basic human freedoms identified by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his State of the Union message in January of 1941. They are the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear of physical aggression. In August of 1941, Roosevelt and Winston Churchill included the Four Freedoms in the Atlantic Charter, which advocated the restoration of self-government to peoples forcibly deprived of it. 

A four-letter word is literally a word with four letters, such as word. Use of the term four-letter to indicate obscene words referring to sexual or excretory functions or organs of the human body goes back to the 19th century. 

Directly vowels are introduced we begin to spell words, and it was found  that amongst the thousands of combinations possible, would be presently included all the profane, obscene, and otherwise objectionable four-letter words of the whole world.
— Frederick Edward Hulme, The Flags of the World, 1897

The incivility of using such four-letter words gave birth to "the four-letter man," a man who is offensive or detestable—or, in his language, a sh!t.

Throughout the book, Hemingway submits his hunting ability, his consideration toward others (the term that he reserves for himself at his most insensitive is a "four-letter man"—presumably, a (see above censored expletive)….
— Richard Brody, The New Yorker, 29 July 2015


The term three-ring circus can either literally refer to a circus with simultaneous performances in three rings or figuratively denote something wild, confusing, engrossing, or entertaining. It is first introduced at the turn of the 20th century. 

It was part pep rally, part fan fest, part three-ring circus. It was a spectacle designed to grab at a slice of a sleepy news cycle in late July.…
— Steve Politi, NJ.com, 26 July 2019

Three sheets in the wind, or three sheets to the wind, used to mean "drunk," goes back to the early 19th century. The first known use in print is in British writer Pierce Egan's book Real Life in London (1821): "Old Wax and Bristles is about three sheets in the wind." The "sheets" in this expression are not bedclothes, as you might have guessed, but neither are they sails. The sheets are ropes or chains that are attached to the lower corner of a ship's sails and used to extend or shorten the sails. If you were on a three-sailed vessel and all three sheets were loose—in the wind—the boat would wallow about uncontrollably much like a staggering drunk. Old-time sailors would say that someone only slightly tipsy was "one sheet in the wind," while a rip-roaring drunk was "three sheets in the wind."


The adjective two-bit owes its meaning of "cheap," "trivial," or "petty" (as in "a two-bit thief" or "a two-bit town") to the value of two monetary bits. The bit is a coin that has been assigned various values over the years, but it has been generally held to be equal to 1/8 of a U.S. dollar or 12 and a half cents. Two bits then is equal to a quarter, and a quarter of something is fractional—hence, two-bit came to refer to someone or something of little value by the 19th century.

In the early 1900s, two cents (or two cents' worth) was deposited in English as a word for an opinion offered on a topic under discussion. The idea behind this figure of speech is that the person is offering a contribution that could very well be significant or valuable or could be insignificant or valueless—either way at least they contributed. It is often used after offer or put in: "offer your two cents"; "put in your two cents' worth." 

The idiom in two shakes—variations of which go back to the 19th century—means "very quickly or soon," and some word histories connect it to the lamb's shaking of its tail. The young sheep does tend to shake its tail in a brisk manner, and when things are said to be done "in two shakes of lamb's tail," it means they are done quickly; however, earlier similar expressions refer to the shaking of a hand.

"SSSS. You want ticket? I have an uncle. "And of course he wants a little something for his trouble. You can be smart and give it to him or you can be stupid and refuse. If you are smart, you find he really does have an uncle, and he can take you to this uncle in the office behind the ticket window, and in two shakes your ticket is in your hand.
— Salman Rushdie, The New Yorker, 22 July 2019

This whole storyline is idiotic, chiefly because who wouldn't marry Lord Merton? I'd marry Lord Merton, in two shakes of a lamb's tail (that sounds dirty but is actually an old English saying). He's the silverest of silver foxes.
— Sophie Gilbert, quoted in The Atlantic, 25 Jan. 2015


Seasoned casino gamblers know one armed-bandit as the name for a slot machine that pays off according to the matching of symbols on wheels spun by a handle (the arm)—there's also an up-to-date electronic version of the machine. Those experiencing a streak of bad luck at a slot machine that they keep feeding might regard it as robbing them—hence, the sobriquet bandit. If the machine is, in fact, making out like a bandit, we suggest stepping away—but do you really want the next person to hit the jackpot?

The phrase at one fell swoop is uttered by Lord Macduff in William Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth when he learns that the play's title character has had his wife and children murdered. Macduff, grief-stricken, utters, "O hell-kite! All? What, all my pretty chickens and their dam at one fell swoop?" His lament is a metaphor likening the act of Macbeth to that of a hawk swooping (or "stooping") down on defenseless prey, and fell here means "fierce, cruel, terrible." The word choice is used to convey both the suddenness and fierceness of the attack as well as the helplessness of the victims.

The adjective fell (a relative of felon) is now rarely used except as a literary term, and today the phrase at one fell swoop is used in the weakened sense "all at once" or "with a single concentrated effort," and it might be encountered with an initial in or with in place of at.

Horses have been used by humans as a means of transportation and as draft animals for centuries. So it is somewhat surprising that the adjective one-horse, used to describe a vehicle or machine drawn by a single horse, is first found in print in the early half of the 18th century. During the 19th century, one-horse came to denote non-equine things that are considered second-rate, small-time, or unimportant. An event or business might be said to be a "one-horse affair," or you might find yourself in a "one-horse town" with nothing to do but stay the night and gallop away upon awakening in search of excitement and adventure. 

One-trick pony refers to someone or something that is skilled or successful in only one area (like a circus pony which has been taught one trick). About mid-20th century, it begins to be used metaphorically in American slang and often connotes that the person or thing in question has little to offer.

One was a one-trick pony, built for the Home Run Derby and nothing else. Another was a broken-down pitcher, relegated to the bullpen, but not the kind of guy you would put in a starting rotation. The third was past his prime and should have ridden off on the going-away scooter he was given and never looked back. On Sunday, they all became members of the AL All-Star team.
— Evan Grant, The Dallas News, 30 June 2019

The verb one-up, meaning "to outdo or get an advantage over (someone)," enters English in the 1960s and is a back-formation from one-upmanship. One-upmanship, meaning "the art or practice of outdoing or keeping one jump ahead of a friend or competitor," is believed to be coined by British author Stephen Potter in his 1952 book One-Upmanship: Being Some Account of the Activities and Teachings of the Lifemanship Correspondence College of One-Upness and Games Lifemastery.

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